First They Killed My Father is Angelina Jolie’s sixth movie as director. Her humanitarian efforts are widely praised so it is no surprise that she took interest in this project. The movie is a biographical historical thriller based on Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name. Perhaps more importantly, Ung wrote the screenplay with Jolie, which offers authenticity that is obvious in this feature.
The movie’s focal point is on five-year-old Loung Ung in 1975. The same year that Khmer Rouge assumes power over Cambodia. His 4-year reign resulted in terror and genocide which resulted in nearly 2 million Cambodian deaths. Ung and her family are forced away from their home and she is trained to become a child soldier in Khmer Rouge’s efforts to fight the enemy. When you first hear that fact, you understand the need for this story to be told.
Quite frankly, the story is told beautifully. The importance of the memoir is clear but it is Jolie’s eye for the camera, and determination to represent the place that allows the story to translate to the audience. First They Killed My Father is not a movie of many words, but more of a feature that provides many actions and imagery to get its point across. There is clear direction such that even with subtitles, you understand the vision. A story like this deserves realism which shows the need of working closely with the source material. There is nothing as close as working with a victim of this tragedy itself.
Most of the scenes in the movie are from the perspective of Loung Ung. It purposefully shields you away from the adults. You can see them, but as the audience, you almost feel like the child, where you do not necessarily understand the purpose of what is next or convey the signals that come from a certain emotion. It does this by shooting from where Ung is standing. At times, the movie mutes itself from a conversation or the camera pans away when her parents do not want her to see something specific. The dialogue at the start is simple and straightforward to represent the sense of calm that the parents want to instill. It is obvious that the last thing they want is their children understanding what is truly going on, and the atrocities they could be potentially facing. Innocence is the movie’s core strength but it is the fading away of that innocence that drives the narrative forward. With each scene, it dramatically gets more intense and Ung’s view of the world slowly distorts.
Despite the film’s objective to shield you away from the atrocities, eventually, it does open up to allow you to understand what is really occurring. Again, everything is well timed and pertinent to Ung’s experiences. The experiences of the children are poignantly shown because eventually, it is difficult to hide the reality of the situation. Once First They Killed My Father shows Ung’s exposure to Rouge’s reign there is a sense of shock, especially when the war starts, which in itself is a great piece of filmmaking that uses authentic surroundings. My only qualm with the movie is at times it did feel very slow.
In the end, you have a great piece of work by Angelina Jolie. The movie’s objective is clear, to expand Jolie’s humanitarian efforts and raise awareness. This story deserves to be told so it is not forgotten. It is on Netflix and classed as an Original so, if you get time, watch it. First They Killed My Father is beautifully told and deserves a watch.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.